In preparation for the regular legislative session starting Jan. 11, a House committee Thursday authorized the staff to buy plastic-glass partitions to protect representatives and employees in the chamber and to buy a system that would allow remote voting within the state Capitol complex.
The Arkansas House Management Committee's members also learned of a plan to renovate a room on the fourth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex into a House committee meeting room. The room was vacated by the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
All the changes would be in response to the covid-19 pandemic.
There are already two rooms for legislative committee meetings on the fifth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex, which is just west of the Capitol.
House Chief of Staff Roy Ragland said the money for renovating the fourth-floor room would come out of $205,000 set aside each year by the Bureau of Legislative Research for renovations. The room would be usable by a 20-member committee, the size of many House panels.
"We are writing the very first textbook on how to deal with a modern pandemic, so we are learning as we go," said the committee chairman, Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock.
"We are applying the best principles that we can, and we try to adjust quickly whenever we see a shortfall, and so we are trying to get ahead of any potential issues that may come as the session approaches," he said.
In the special and fiscal legislative sessions earlier this year, the 100-member House convened in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Jack Stephens Center to socially distance themselves because of the pandemic. The 35-member Senate met with about 20 members on their chamber's floor spread out, and the rest were in the galleries and elsewhere.
Last week, the Legislative Council's executive subcommittee authorized the purchase of 86 plastic-glass partitions to safeguard lawmakers in Room A of the Multi-Agency Complex, which is commonly referred to as "Big MAC," in advance of pre-session budget hearings starting Oct. 11.
Members on the Senate Efficiency Committee last week asked the staff to explore purchasing similar dividers for that chamber.
Ragland told the House Management Committee that he has received one estimate from a company and is waiting for another company's estimate for purchasing roughly 100 plastic-glass partitions to separate people in the chamber, and nearby offices and media representatives in the gallery.
He said the partitions will cost less than $50,000 and won't be permanently attached to the desks in the chamber.
"I think adding the Plexiglas is part of that risk mitigation that helps you reduce the risk and, all things considered, is a relatively low-cost model for doing it," said Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, who is a doctor.
Ragland said he and Johnson met with state Department of Health officials Wednesday because "all of this would be in vain if they didn't approve of it.
"We went through our plans," he said. "The other thing was just that we would follow the other procedures such as [wearing] masks."
Ragland said the House's plan is to have cubicles for representatives with plastic-glass across the front of their desks and in between members, and "then [Health Department officials] will approve us being able to meet in the chamber.
"Everybody can be in there, use your voting machines and participate like we kind of normally would," he said.
"If somebody out in the middle tested positive, what will happen is just the person immediately to each side would have to be quarantined, not the person up in front or the person directly behind," Ragland said.
"If you are sitting on the end, it would be just one person that would have to be quarantined because of the amount of time we would be together," he said. "We are going to be over the [recommended] 15 minutes most of the time in close proximity. But we are fortunate in that the distances, plus the masks, plus the Plexiglas, would make it where the person directly in front of you or directly behind you would not have to be quarantined."
Ragland said this is important because "we can't have 2o or 30 people gone in a session or get in a situation where we have a bunch of the staff that is out."
"I feel like it is the best alternative that we have," he said.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said other legislatures have purchased plastic-glass partitions in response to the pandemic.
"The fact of the matter is we have a constitutional duty, and role and obligation to meet, and we are going to do that, but at the same time we want to try to work with the Department of Health," he said. "We want to make sure that we are working in a way that we can work as safe as possible."
House Parliamentarian Buddy Johnson said the House approved a rule earlier this year for the special and fiscal sessions to allow directed proxy voting so representatives didn't have to be present in the chamber.
"It got the job done, [but] it was less than satisfactory," he said. "Doing a directed proxy vote was not like being a member and voting with your peers."
Johnson said House officials reached out to Virginia-based International Roll Call about options, and the company suggested web-based software so a representative on the legislative network with a House-issued laptop computer or a workbook "could have a virtual voting button ... just like you would in the chamber and they could vote in real time, like anybody in the chamber."
International Roll-Call estimates the cost to implement this remote voting system at between $39,000 and $54,000, he said.
"This remote voting would give the House a tool to allow members if they were, for whatever reason, not comfortable being under the conditions with Plexiglas," to vote remotely, Johnson said. He said the House might want to continue the directed proxy voting option for a representative who is quarantined outside the Capitol.
Shepherd said "in my personal opinion, we would only rarely use" the remote voting system.
"Some members may not feel comfortable for whatever reason sitting in close proximity on the floor, and under this system they could be in the gallery where they would be physically present and still be there, but would still have their laptop and be voting as opposed to trying to come up with some other system to cast their ballot," he said.
Shepherd said he wants the House to continue taking Fridays off as long as it can during the regular session next year like it did during the 2019 regular session.
"That is going to be more challenging because our facilities are such that we don't have every committee room fully available for use because of the fact for some committees there is not space to provide the social distancing or to accommodate the public and witnesses, so what we are looking at is what other options are available and Big-Mac C," the room on the fourth floor of the Multi-Agency Complex, is an option, he said.